Saturday, March 23, 2019

Beyond the Binary: Reexamining the Idea of Two Sexes

For centuries around the globe cultural groups recognized and continue to recognize the existence of more than one gender.  Conversations on gender have been framed on the notion that while multiple gender identities can and do exist, meeting the social needs of the cultural groups that define them, these gender identities are based on the existence of two distinct biological sexes.  This makes sense when you consider how the biological sexes are defined: as male versus female.  Males are defined by primary sexual characteristics, which include the presence of a penis, and secondary sexual characteristics, such as facial hair, an “Adam’s Apple”, and deep voices; females are defined by primary sexual characteristics, including the presence of breasts and a uterus, and secondary sexual characteristics, including higher voices and the ability to birth offspring.  However, these are idealized characterizations, and not everyone meets these ideal types.  Some men have high pitched voices and some women have facial hair.  More recent medical evidence further demonstrates that this sex binary may be false.  Today’s blog post will take a closer look at this evidence and explain how the sex binary is not actually the case but instead a spectrum.

In the 1990s scientists first began to realize that the dichotomy of two biological sexes may not be completely true.  Genetic and medical studies began to shed light on this issue as published reports demonstrated two distinct cases: a woman pregnant with her third child went in for an amniocentesis and her doctor (as well as she) was shocked to discover that she carried XY DNA; an adult male who fathered four children went in for surgery and his doctor discovered he had a uterus, in addition to testes.  Further study into these and other cases revealed that genetically sex was not simply XX for female and XY for male.  It was discovered that an individual’s sex is actually based on 25 different genetic markers, which accounts for the variation we see in the sexes (e.g. different sized breasts and penises; men who can grow facial hair and me who cannot; women who can birth children and those who cannot). 

Other studies demonstrated that greater comprehension of fetal development.  It was discovered that in utero sex development begins during week 5 and continues on for several more weeks.  During development a fetus could gain or lose various elements that would define it as a “him” or a “her”, retaining some of those characteristics genetically or morphologically.  Oftentimes individuals do not realize this until later in life when a medical or genetic intervention occurs.

Physical anthropological studies also demonstrate issues with this sex binary.  When it comes to identifying the sex of a deceased individual based on their skeletal remains there is a scoring system that ranges from 1 to 5.  The ends of the range are the most diagnostic of either sex, whereas three is indeterminate.  Scores of 2 and 4 are “likely” male or female.  As someone who has assessed sex on multiple skeletons (over 100) it is clear that very few individuals consistently score 1s or 5s in all anatomical areas.  When I explain the methods used for sexing to my students they will often seek out the morphological areas that they can touch (such as the back of the skull for the nuchal crest) and many panic because they do not meet the ideal of male or female (or even male or female at all).  This demonstrates that these skeletal differences exist in life just as they do in death, and further call into question the notion of the sex binary.

Taken together the science is continuing to demonstrate that there is no sex binary.  Instead sex exists on a spectrum.  And that is okay.  This spectrum has existed for centuries, just as multiple gender identities, and humans continue to exist, procreate, and do what they do.  Therefore this information, although not new to nature but new to us, should not raise alarm.  Instead, we should acknowledge it for what it is and realize that we should perhaps abandon archaic notions that no longer apply and accept those that do: sex is a spectrum.


Addison, C., & Taylor-Alexander, S. (2016, May 12). Human sex is not simply male or female. So what? Retrieved from Aeon:
Ainsworth, C. (2015). Sex redefined. Nature.
Fausto-Sterling, A. (2018, October 25). Why Sex Is Not Binary . The New York Times.
Ford, A. (2015, February 24). Sex biology redefined: Article suggests that genes don’t indicate binary sexes. Retrieved from Scope: Standford Medcine:
Kralick, A. (2018, December 25). How Human Bones Reveal the Fallacy of a Biological Sex Binary. Pacific Standard Magazine.
The Editors. (2017, September 1). The New Science of Sex and Gender. Retrieved from Scientific America:

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Racist History of Three Common Phrases

Today’s blog post builds off the theme of a previous blog post (Words Can Hurt: An Examination of Ethnic Slurs), which covered the topic of language and phrases that were derived from hate and prejudice and continue to be used today largely because those origins are forgotten and/or unknown.  I have elected to continue writing on this theme because the phrases noted in that post are just a few of many that exist and continue to be used today.  I have elected to use three phrases as they are ones that I hear commonly today (as well as have used myself, due to ignorance).  With knowledge comes power, as the saying goes, and with the knowledge of the origins of these three popular phrases you can make the conscious decision to discontinue their use based on where, how, and why they came into existence. 


No Can Do: Today this common phrase refers to one’s inability or lack of desire to complete a specific task.  It is typically given in response to a request.  Unfortunately, as innocent as this phrase sounds its origins are anything but.  The term was first used in the 18th and 19th centuries as a means of mocking Chinese immigrants who were learning English.  Their pidgin language, which incorporated their native language with American English, led to broken phrases that were not grammatically correct.  Anti-Chinese whites created the phrase “no can do” as a means of mocking and making fun of the Chinese.  The phrase was quickly adopted into the American lexicon because of the widespread anti-Chinese sentiments of the period.

Long Time No See: Another familiar phrase that is widely used today is “long time no see”.  It is meant as an endearing greeting upon seeing someone you had not seen in some time, but its origins are alienating.  The first reference to the term comes from W.F. Drannan’s book Thirty-one Years on Plains, published in 1901.  In the book he quotes an American Indian as first saying this phrase, which is either a gross or accidental misrepresentation of traditional American Indian greetings.  Much like with the Chinese “long time no see” originated as a means of mocking a group that was (and still is in many ways) disliked.

Uppity: You may already be familiar with the origins of uppity as its use by national-level politicians a few years ago led to a barrage of articles and media discussion on the topic.  The term denotes someone who is arrogant or stuck up, and that was the original meaning of the phrase.  What has changed is the reference within the term.  Today “uppity” can be used for anyone, but in its original use it meant blacks who acted outside of their expected and accepted behaviors in mixed race interactions.  The phrase was typically coupled with the word, “n----r”, which further reaffirms its racist and prejudicial origins.

For more information on other phrases with problematic origins please review the resources provided in the Bibliography.  Ultimately, it is up to you on what you do with this information and how you opt to change your language.  Many have taken the stance that we, as a society and culture, are becoming too sensitive and therefore cannot possibly alter every statement we make, and other recognize that language does change over time and the meaning change and therefore origins are meaningless.  I argue that we still should become more aware as awareness allows us to recognize our past mistakes and do better in the present and future.  To use the statement that we cannot change is an afront to the generations of progress that exist throughout human history.  Instead we should realize that we can change; it is simply a matter of whether or not we want to change. 


Coe, T. (2015, June 18). 9 Words with Offensive Origins. Retrieved from Oxford Dictionaries:
Pennington, M. (n.d.). 12 Surprisingly Offensive Words You Need to Stop Saying. Retrieved from Reader's Digest:
Perry, T. (2019, February 4). 10 common phrases that are actually racist AF. Retrieved from Upworthy:
Reeve, E. (2011, November 22). Yep, 'Uppity' Is Racist. Atlantic Monthly.
Ridley, J. (2008, September 16). How Bad is 'Uppity'? Retrieved from NPR:
Steinmetz, K. (2018, April 26). Avoiding Phrases With Unseemly Origins Is More Complicated Than You Might Think. Time Magazine.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

The Dinka of North Africa

Stock Photo of Dinka boys (Getty Images)

There are several African ethnic groups, but the three largest of northern Africa are the Nuer, Azande, and the Dinka.  Two of these three have been previously discussed on this blog, so it is only appropriate to cover the final group: the Dinka.  This blog post will address the cultural elements of the Dinka both in the past and today, thereby providing you (the reader) with a greater understanding of the rich cultural groups that exist on the African continent.

The Dinka are one of the largest Nilotic (meaning of the Nile) ethnic groups that exist in northern Africa, and they are the largest Nilotic group in South Sudan.  This is because the Dinka is a term that actually refers to several different groups who are linguistically and culturally similar, although they themselves feel that they are different based on their clan membership.  The Dinka also call themselves the Moinjaang, which means the “people of the people”. 

Culturally, the Dinka are very similar to other north African cultural groups, such as the Nuer.  This similarity is largely based on their primary subsistence strategy, the pastoralism of cattle, as well as the cultural importance of cattle to the Dinka.  Much like the Nuer the Dinka derive their names based on their cattle, as well as hold important initiations and rituals that revolve around their cattle.  A man’s social status is also based on the number of cattle he owns and tends to, with the more cattle equating to greater social status.

Historically, the Dinka were exclusively pastoralists.  Men would tend to the cattle, while young boys would tend to the sheep and goats.  The Dinka were therefore nomadic and would set up temporary shelters to allow their herds to graze in areas best suited for the dry or rainy seasons.  Today, as a result of British colonization and changes instituted as a result, the Dinka have incorporated agriculture into their subsistence strategies.  Men and young boys continue to herd cattle, sheep, and goats, while women are the primary agriculturalists, tending to beans, corn, grains, peanuts, and other miscellaneous crops.  Distinct divisions of labor continue to exist among the Dinka as they had in the past, with women being primarily responsible for domestic duties that keep them close to their permanent homes, while men remain responsible for pastoral/animal husbandry and travel away from the home for short periods of time.

The Dinka are also characterized by a series of cultural traditions that are common to African ethnic groups.  The Dinka practice the “bride price”, where a groom pays the bride’s family to compensate for their loss in her income to the family, as well as to pledge his commitment to any children born of the union.  The Dinka also elected not to wear clothing, save beads worn around the neck or wrist.  Married women, however, would opt to wear a goat skin cloth to demonstrate their married status.  Rites of passage, such as transitioning from childhood to adulthood, would be marked by specific rituals unique to the Dinka, which included the removal of teeth and scarification of the face. 

The Dinka have been steadfast in keeping their traditional ways of life despite interference by outside groups.  Before the British the Dinka were at war with Arab invaders who sought to conquer and control territory in north Africa.  After the British the Dinka were swept up in the Sudanese Civil War.  Several thousand Dinka fled Africa as a result, creating Dinka diasporas throughout Europe, North America, and Australia.  Many of the Dinka who remained in the region were affected by the warfare in various ways.  Many men elected to fight with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, and many women and children were sold into slavery or became victims of human trafficking throughout the region and abroad.  Today, the Dinka do not face any sort of formal conflict with neighboring groups, but the effects of these intrusions have resulted in some changes to their traditional ways.  This is scene in the incorporation of clothing and the preference for a bride who has a university education.  These are examples of changes occurring among the Dinka, but overall the cultural changes are slow and are not indicative of full-scale assimilation of the Dinka into another cultural group.  Much like the other two ethnic groups of the region the Dinka remain steadfast to who they are.


Gurtong. (2019). Dinka (Jieng, Muony-Jang). Retrieved from Bringing South Sundanese Together:
Jenkins, O. B. (2010). People Profile: The Dinka of South Sudan. Retrieved from Strategy Leader Resource Kit:
Minority Rights Group International. (2008, July). Sudan: Dinka. Retrieved from World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples: